EU candidate Turkey and South Korea, nations that have watched their own fortunes surge in a generation, are ramping up aid programmes for poor nations at a time when such spending in Europe is under threat, a EurActiv analysis of aid statistics shows.

Turkey and South Korea figure among a handful of nations that are giving more to help poor countries at a time when the traditional heavy-hitters - the EU, Japan and the United States – are struggling with domestic budgetary problems and are on course to scale back their overseas commitments.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels this week are to consider austerity measures that could reduce the EU’s foreign aid spending by 11% in the 2014-2020 budget, while several EU nations are likely to miss their aid commitments to disadvantaged nations. 

Sylvia Tiryaki, vice chairwoman of Istanbul Kültür University’s international relations department, said Turkey was increasingly active in overseas development not just through foreign aid, but through non-governmental and charity organisations.

“One of the reasons is that Turkey itself is becoming richer and the economical situation here is much better than it is in other countries, so we can afford it,” Tiryaki said in an interview from Ankara. The country, she added, is “undoubtedly a regional player and would look to see itself is a global player in future.”

Turkey’s help to Egypt following the Arab spring and in fragile Somalia are designed to bring political and economic stability in Turkey’s back yard, because “poverty breeds radicalism,” she said.

Big increases in budgets

South Korea nearly tripled its spending from 2006 to 2011, easily outpacing any other donor country, while Turkey nearly doubled its overseas aid budget in the same period. Their status as emerging donors follows significant economic growth in the post-Cold War period and the nations’ rise as regional economic and political powers.

Michael Ward, a senior policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said South Korea’s expanding aid budget stems from its economic might, its regional interests, and appreciation for aid it received in the decades after its devastating civil war in the early 1950s.

“There is a very strong feeling in Korea, certainly within the government, that Korea benefited hugely as country from aid after the civil war,” Ward said by telephone from OECD’s base in Paris. “The older generation there remembers Korea being poor and the role that international assistance played.”

Turkey faces criticism

Still, the two emerging donors are a long way from joining the big leagues, data from the OECD and development monitoring groups show.

South Korea provided $1.33 billion in overseas aid and Turkey $1.3 billion in 2011, out of a world total of $125.1 billion. International aid figures are typically denominated in US dollars.

When measured by gross national income (GNI), aid accounted for 0.12% of South Korea’s GNI in 2011, falling short of its 0.13% target, and 0.13% of Turkey’s GNI. Overall, the 24 member countries the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) allocated 0.31% of GNI to foreign aid and the EU’s 2015 target is 0.7%.

Turkey historically has used its foreign aid to support mainly Islamic countries – and nations with historic links to its Ottoman past - in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Balkans. However, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency began expanding its reach to Africa, including Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, in 2003. It has also led relief efforts to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

But Turkey is under the gun for spending money overseas while remaining a major recipient of EU and international development assistance.

In a blistering report on EU aid, the British Parliament’s International Development Committee noted that sending money to a “relatively rich” country like Turkey undermined efforts to help impoverished nations.

“It is unacceptable that only 46% of aid disbursed through European institutions goes to low-income countries. It devalues the concept of aid when so much of what is defined as Official Development Assistance (ODA) goes to relatively rich countries such as Turkey,” said the report, released in April 2012.

The Berlin-based European Stability Initiative estimates that EU pre-accession funding – including rural and regional development - for Turkey amounted to €899.5 million in 2012, nearly double the level in 2007. Turkey was the 20th largest development aid recipient in 2010, receiving $1.1 billion, OECD and World Bank data show.

Tiryaki, who is also deputy director of the Global Political Trends Centre in Istanbul,  dismisses criticism about Turkey’s role as an aid recipient and donor. Turkey’s foreign assistance reflects the country’s Islamic “understanding of providing help to the poor. … You have to give a part of your earnings, a part of your income to those who don’t have anything.”

Reforms urged in South Korea

Unlike Turkey, South Korea is not an aid recipient. But the OECD, in a report issued last month, urged the country to revamp its aid programme, including the KOICA development agency, to improve cooperation with other international donors and to decouple aid from contracts with South Korean companies.

South Korea assists more than 20 nations, many of them in Southeast and South Asia. The OECD report recommends it concentrate on fewer countries.

“Spreading your aid across too many countries … does not go as far effectively as if you were concentrating the resources,” Ward said. “They’ve still got 26 priority countries which for a donor of their size is just really too many.”

In general, though, South Korea scores good marks in OECD’s checklist of aid effectiveness and in responding to recommendations made by the organisation.